All in the timing | Monocle

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Alain Villard is the charismatic ceo behind Swatch, the Swiss watchmaker known for its brightly hued timepieces that are often associated with our childhoods. But under Villard, Swatch, whose battery-powered watches are frequently credited with saving the Swiss watch industry following the quartz crisis of the 1970s, has succeeded in tuning back into the cultural zeitgeist and attracting the attention of grown-up watch collectors. This is partly thanks to a series of outside-the-box partnerships, including two sell-out collaborations with the Swatch Group’s premium sister brands, Omega and Blancpain. The MoonSwatch – a spin-off of Omega’s popular Speedmaster line, worn on the moon by Buzz Aldrin in 1969 – elicited long queues around the world, with some shops having to close their doors within 30 minutes of the release due to unexpected demand. The excitement remained just as high during the more recent launch of a collaboration with Blancpain, a playful take on its Fifty Fathoms diving watch. Villard is also behind the latest releases in the brand’s long-running Swatch Art Journey collection, which sees the work of famous artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Jean-Michel Basquiat transformed into wrist-ready masterpieces.

Alain Villard
Omega is one of the Swatch Group's premium sister brands

Having grown up in the canton of Bern in Switzerland’s “Watch Valley”, Villard understood the culture of watchmaking from a young age. He began his tenure at Swatch in 2002 at the company’s shop in Biel, home to the Swatch HQ. He quickly rose through the ranks thanks to his zeal for the brand, becoming retail manager for the Swiss market, then brand manager for Swatch Switzerland. He was named ceo in 2022. Here, he talks to monocle about Swatch’s success, art-world collaborations and future ambitions. 

What is Swatch’s position in today’s horology market?
Since the brand was founded more than 40 years ago, our aim has been to satisfy a wide audience with our offering. At the same time, we have always taken risks, which have been key to the success of Swatch today. We have a lot of competition in the watch market now, so it’s important to stay faithful to our identity as the world’s favourite “second watch”. The footfall in our shops and the reception of our projects around the world show that Swatch is still a coveted brand. We want to maintain that momentum and keep introducing innovative products.

Why did you decide to collaborate with Omega and Blancpain, which operate in a more premium space?
By bringing together iconic brands under the Swatch Group umbrella, we were able to really get it right. I was lucky to be part of the task force working on these projects. We could tell that something exciting was happening. We examined every design detail and used the element of surprise to our advantage. These collaborations remain ongoing; we’re constantly developing new ideas and concepts.

Were you surprised by the reaction?
I wasn’t entirely expecting the reception that we received. We had about 5,000 people waiting outside our shop in Melbourne just before the inaugural launch of the MoonSwatch. And there was the same pattern worldwide; the reception at our Carnaby Street shop in London was equally amazing. I still get goose bumps when I think about it. What’s also impressive is that Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch sales have increased by more than 50 per cent since the launch of the MoonSwatch collection.

What was the idea behind your latest Swatch Art Journey collection?
We have collaborated with the art world since 1984, the year after the brand was founded. There has always been a lot of consideration from the artists who we partner with, so our design-inspired collections have always been successful. Keith Haring and Kiki Picasso worked with us at the start and we have since collaborated with creatives such as Damien Hirst, José Carlos Casado, Vivienne Westwood, Renzo Piano and Annie Leibovitz, who are true leaders in their respective fields. Artistic flair has always been part of our brand dna and identity. The latest additions to the Swatch Art Journey collection are exclusive collaborations with major museums and organisations around the world. We wanted to create watches that paid tribute to iconic artworks from different continents, including those in the collections of the Moma in New York, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi in Florence and the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

What does the future hold for Swatch?
We haven’t made a smartwatch, though I respect brands that have. I’m not saying that we will never make one but it’s important that Swatch timepieces remain coveted fashion items above all else. We want to set trends and create pieces that customers can switch around according to their outfits. Even though I always wear one or, sometimes, even two watches, I can’t recall ever checking the time or longing for the weekend [while at work]. We want our timepieces to be functional but fun too.

Second thoughts
A collaboration fatigue had taken hold of the watch market over recent years, as every watchmaker tried to partner with designers, architects or sportsmen on limited-edition designs. On paper such tie-ins look compelling, yet so many lack substance and fail to resonate: slapping joint logos on a dial can only take you so far.

But this year we’ve seen a stronger play for creativity. The latest slew of collaborations has felt more grown-up, with watch firms allowing partners to put a genuine stamp on the watches that they co-design.

The Royal Oak Concept Flying Tourbillon, designed by couturier Tamara Ralph for Audemars Piguet, and Victoria Beckham’s sleek collection for Breitling – both unveiled in early 2024 – are examples of how to marry a fashion designer’s sensibility with watchmaking. Meanwhile, Italian-Swiss label Panerai has partnered with cultural institutions, the America’s Cup and even the military to offer collectors once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Those buying its limited-edition diving watches, for example, have found themselves visiting the Vatican out-of-hours, or participating in intense US Navy Seal training.

Watchmakers should take note: take bigger chances and think about the value of collaboration beyond the end product.

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